Acehnese rise from the rubble

Greg Roberts
AAP, 18 December 2014

In early 2005 I was sitting in a makeshift cafe in Banda Aceh sipping coffee with local survivors.

Surrounding us was an apocalyptic scene of rubble where a city used to be and it felt like the world had changed forever.

Banda Aceh had been flattened by the Indian Ocean tsunami that killed 170,000-plus people in the Indonesian province of Aceh and affected one million people.

The young man working in the cafe refused to take my change as a tip – worth little in Australian dollars but much more locally – in stark contrast to other Indonesian cities where you are relentlessly hassled.

I also saw a group of young men washing themselves with soap in a large ditch, smiling despite being forced to bathe publicly after losing their houses and loved ones.

It was a moving scene.

I didn’t recognise the Aceh I returned to this month after nearly a decade, where the scenes of devastation and corpses has been replaced by a tropical paradise.

Life is humming along as if the tsunami never happened for the proud and resilient Acehnese, who have returned to homes on the coast.

The plight of tsunami victims captured the hearts and minds of Australians, with well over half of the record $US1.4 billion in government aid and donations to NGOs going to the Acehnese.

“Their money got here and in the first three months it certainly saved lives,” World Vision Australia chief executive Tim Costello told AAP, during his visit to Aceh to mark the 10th anniversary of the tsunami.

“People were living with terrible exposure and dirty water, always with the threat of a cholera outbreak due to sanitation and latrine stuff.

“Australians can be really proud.”

The Acehnese, who Mr Costello described as naturally innovative, are materially better off than before the tsunami, living in the tens of thousands of new and better houses built with foreign aid and travelling on new highways.

A key part of our return as a group of journalists to Aceh was to hopefully track down businessman Umar Ali, aged 58, and his wife, Rusnah, 50, who were living under a tarpaulin when we met them in 2005.

Both their daughters, Tina, 21, and Supriyani, 22, were killed.

We found them via social media and it was a relief to see they had got on with their lives, living in a new house in Banda Aceh partly paid for by money Australian freelance journalist Christopher Zinn helped raise.

“It is 10 years but it feels like it only just happened a few days ago,” Mr Ali said.

They were emotional when they saw Zinn again this month, urging us to leave our hotel and stay with them, reinforcing the reputation of the Acehnese as being the most hospitable people in Indonesia.

They will spend the anniversary on December 26 at their mosque, praying for the 29 relatives they lost.

The trauma is still there for the Acehnese.

There was widespread panic resulting in road deaths after a strong earthquake in 2012 that prompted people to try and flee inland.

The Acehnese are the most devout Muslims in Indonesia and many believe the tsunami was Allah’s will, which helps ease the pain of losing family members.

Many also believe it was a punishment for not following Islamic sharia law well enough, something which has become official there since.

Tour guide Salmi Hardiyanti, whose mother, sister and grandmother were all killed by the tsunami, relives it every day talking to visitors.

She works at a fishing boat that washed several kilometres inland to rest on a house, saving the lives of 59 people who climbed aboard. It’s still there and is now a tourist attraction.

Yes, there is tsunami tourism.

When she was running away from the tsunami – as so many of the survivors did – she turned around and her mother was gone.

“I lost all my family, God gave me this examination so I could be a better person,” she says.

“Before the tsunami many people were afraid of living – after the tsunami it is peace and better than the fighting.”

A Javanese woman at the boat site, Octaberlina, who was visiting an Acehnese friend said the locals were a strong people who viewed the tsunami as almost a blessing in helping end a three decade-long civil war.

Aceh’s economic future should be bright, given its vast reserves of oil and gas and many other resources.

The message from politicians, many of them GAM ex-combatants who were safely in the jungles when the tsunami hit, is that the rebuilding is over and now the economy must be fixed.

They urge us to help them drum up investors from Australia to get their economy going.

One of the worst tsunami-hit towns, Calang on the west coast, has a new large port but no industry, while Aceh contains some of the world’s best surfing and scuba diving locations.

Years of civil war and negative publicity about sharia law has kept investors and tourists away, although Calang-based Aceh Jaya mayor and civil war ex-combatant Azhar Abdurrahman said there was scope to relax sharia for tourists.

“Optimism is very important, Aceh has been through the conflict and tsunami and passed through this difficult situation,” he said.

“The way of struggle right now is not about gunfighting but more on economic struggles and to develop the people to stand on their own two feet so Aceh can be built better for the future.”

Greg Roberts first travelled to Aceh with APJC in 2005, and returned with APJC in 2014.